It’s a tricky business packaging a songbook of successful pop tunes into a theatrical musical that both tells a substantive story and serves the audience’s thirst for nostalgia. The show’s cast also has to deliver concert-style versions of seminal, well-known songs that capture what was so great about the tracks in the first place, while avoiding plain imitation of the originals.
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations () has a leg up on most jukebox musicals with just the sheer number of potentially substantive storylines comprising the Motown group’s biography. As one of the Temps notes late in the play, some two dozen members have, at one time or another in the group’s long history, donned a natty suit to perform in the R&B quintet. There might be countless takes on what it means to be one of the Temptations.
The take Ain’t Too Proud is running with derives from the point of view, and published memoir, of the group’s last surviving founding member, Otis Williams. Remarkably, Williams, now 76, still performs with the group, so he’s seen all those other Temptations come and go for over 50 years. But based on his story, he’d be the first to acknowledge that the group’s “Classic 5” lineup, established in 1964, was untouchably the best.
Director Des McAnuff does a breathtaking job of demonstrating exactly why that particular five — Otis, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin, and Paul Williams (no relation to Otis) — were so magical together. However, the magic of riveting biography isn’t necessarily in the show’s book, by acclaimed playwright Dominique Morisseau, whose piercing drama Skeleton Crew was presented recently in a fantastic production at Studio. Hailing from Motown herself, Morisseau’s dialogue sparkles with authenticity and wit. But the behind-the-music plotting, narrated directly to the audience by Otis (Derrick Baskin), barrels ahead with a pace that starts to feel routine.
Fights between Temptations, and assorted wives and girlfriends, roll across stage with a steady “and-then-this-happened” rhythm, as if stuck to the built-in conveyor belts that move the actors around Robert Brill’s sparse but imaginative sets. Otis and wife Josephine (Rashidra Jones) play different versions of the same scene several times. She wants him home, he won’t leave the road, repeat, until finally they move on.
The most effective onstage moves come not from the narrative, but Sergio Trujillo. The Tony-nominated choreographer seems to be the go-to guy for reimagining the stage moves of acts from Donna Summer, Gloria Estefan and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (Summer, On Your Feet! and Jersey Boys). For Ain’t Too Proud, Trujillo has infused the sharp synchronization of the original Temptations choreography with a sexy and elegant contemporary edge.
In full flight for performances of hits like “My Girl,” the cast portraying the Classic 5 — Ephraim Sykes as combustible lead David Ruffin, James Harkness as soulful Paul, Jeremy Pope as cocky tenor Eddie, Jawan M. Jackson as smooth bass Melvin, and the aforementioned Baskin — produce their own magic together. The dancing these five guys conjure while singing full-out, dressed to dapper perfection in costume designer Paul Tazewell’s wardrobe, is more than impressive. Although, for show-stopping entertainment value, the Next 5, i.e., the Temptations minus Ruffin and with new lead singer Dennis Edwards (Caliaf St. Aubyn), hit a mighty high with their sizzling performance of “I Can’t Get Next to You.”
The entire cast, including Candice Marie Woods leading the Supremes as Diana Ross, nail their performances. Pope’s falsetto doesn’t really sound like Kendricks’, but he still sounds great. Sykes doesn’t much look like Ruffin, but he captures the singer’s fire, his explosive talent for expressing emotion through a song, and the pain he carried from a dark childhood and his tragic love story with fellow Motown star Tammi Terrell (Nasia Thomas).
Harkness transcends notes about sounding or looking like the man he’s portraying. He’s simply the Paul Williams of the group, a moving embodiment of the real-life singer’s enigmatic sensuality and vulnerability. Following the shape and evolution of his performance, knowing in advance Paul’s full trajectory in this story, yields strong dramatic impact.
Like most such musicals, Ain’t Too Proud rewards longtime fans of the music and the group with the highlights and lowlights they arrived expecting to witness. Thought the script might dole those bits out too dutifully, the singing and dancing of these Temptations put those moments across beautifully.
Ain’t Too Proud runs to July 22 at Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $39 to $159. Call 202-467-4600, or visit Kennedy-Center.org.